Pruitt wants to give power to states. Not all of them want it

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Scott Pruitt took the helm at U.S. EPA promising that under the Trump administration, states would take greater control over environmental regulations.

States have had mixed responses to Pruitt’s message. Some argue that local officials are better-equipped to choose regulatory strategies that work best within their borders. Others say EPA has a vital role to play in managing air and water pollution, and it should not limit that role.

Now Congress will be taking up the question of how much authority states should have in controlling pollution. The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment is holding a hearing tomorrow on ways states could play an increased role in EPA regulations.

Pruitt calls the relationship “cooperative federalism,” and he has made it a centerpiece of his “Back to Basics” agenda at EPA. In a recent interview with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), Pruitt said Congress initially intended for states to be a “primary or active partner” in implementing regulations created under environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

“It was only this past administration that displaced that. As opposed to working in partnership, they worked in opposition. They worked as adversaries,” Pruitt said, adding, “The president and the EPA under our leadership now are focused upon restoring that confidence and that trust to say, ‘We can do better than that.'”

But states are also leery of the environmental impact of an EPA potentially becoming less involved in pollution control.

“We believe in a strong partnership between state agencies and EPA,” said Dennis Schain, communications director for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “There are cases where involvement of EPA can be critical. We need EPA to be able to weigh in and settle issues that are interstate.”

Because of its location along the Eastern Seaboard, prevailing winds to the west and south carry in neighboring states’ air pollution, leaving Connecticut with air quality that does not always meet federal standards. The state also manages water quality in the Connecticut River, which begins in northern New Hampshire and flows into the Long Island Sound. Connecticut does not have the authority that EPA does to enforce cross-state pollution standards or tighten its neighbors’ permitting standards, he said.

Schain called Pruitt’s idea of cooperative federalism a “great concept,” but one that hasn’t yet been proved effective. He noted that the state appreciates the authority to create regulations that supersede those enacted by the federal government.

“Definitely the states have an important role to play, and they do know the issues in their states. That doesn’t mean you can diminish EPA and the work that they do. You need both,” he said.

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality air chief Michael Dowd said he is concerned by the Trump administration’s proposed 31 percent cut to EPA funding and what that would mean for states’ ability to address pollution.

“We sort of are at a loss to understand how we can take on more federal responsibility from EPA while at the same time sustaining a 30 percent cut in funding,” he said.

Dowd added that his interactions with EPA at its Region 3 office have not changed since Trump took office. Most of the conversations about greater state authority are still at the state DEQ level.

“These EPA folks that I’m talking to are basically doing the job they always did; they are relating to us on a day-to-day level,” Dowd said. “And with respect to the regulatory world as it may evolve, it certainly hasn’t gotten down to our level yet.

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Director Misael Cabrera and Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh will be testifying, along with Deborah Swackhamer, professor emerita of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Neither DEQ director was available to speak prior to the hearing. But in written public comments on regulations EPA should roll back or replace, the Arkansas DEQ challenged EPA’s regional haze federal implementation plan, arguing that the costs far outweigh the benefits of putting in pollution control technology.

“EPA’s mandate to impose billions in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits is questionable, at best, and irrational at worst,” the public comments read.

The state DEQ wrote that EPA’s own projections found that visibility improvements would not be detectable by the naked eye, so the federal implementation plan should either be modified or repealed.

In a phone interview, Swackhamer said she would be testifying about the importance of having strong science as a backbone for environmental policy. She cited ozone and regional haze standards as examples where EPA can implement the Clean Air Act more effectively than states because pollution travels across state boundaries.

“The federal government is well-suited to doing some of that science and bette-suited than the states, and the states are more at a place where they can implement as opposed to conduct independent science,” Swackhamer said.